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I am a high school English teacher in an urban high school in Oklahoma City. I am a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 2309. I am a Democrat, a union activist and a worker for social justice. I also am a Christian (Congregationalist). I play chess and coach our school chess team.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Teacher Mandates

Well, the good news is I was able to return to class this morning feeling my usual chipper self without any depression hangover.  And classes went fairly well.  I got to thinking about all the requirements and mandates I have to deal with in my profession, and I came up with a list that is probably not complete as it is and will be increased as we move towards end of the year testing.

Of course, there is the usual stuff of coming up with weekly lesson plans, daily grading, establishing classroom rules, and creating syllabi.  In addition to those we have to:

Give a Common Formative Assessment (CFA)every two weeks or so testing a different objective

Grade the CFAs

Disaggregate our results into: those mastering objective, those not mastering the objective, those who have mastered/not mastered the objected who are English Language Learners (ELL) or Special Education (SPED) students

Provide examples of our CFAs for our immediate supervisors

Provide examples of our remediation material

Remediate those who have not mastered the CFA

Retest those who have not mastered the CFA to see if they now have mastered the CFA

Set our consequences for tardies

Administer consequences for tardies

Do the same for classroom disrupters

Submit work for students who have been placed in In-School Intervention (ISI)

Submit work for students who have been assigned Out of School Suspension if they are suspended for more than 10 days

Meet with our Professional Learning Communities (fellow teachers in our subject area)

Submit reports of our meeting

Contact parents concerning their student's grades, attendance issues, tardies, classroom behavior problems, and also make positive contacts as well.

Record and report grades

Make lists of failing students and contact their parents

Attend workshops

Enforce school policy

Participate in parent/teacher conferences

Participate in SPED Individual Education Plans (IEPs)

Make modifications for students according to their IEPs

Come up with strategies for students who struggle with learning the lesson objectives

Differentiate instruction in accordance with students' learning styles

Find methods to accommodate ELL students

Do morning duty at our duty stations

Attend workshops

Enforce school policies

You know. Maybe I have a reason for feeling a bit blue every now and then.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

A Visit from an Old Enemy

Today my old enemy, depression, came for a visit.  I woke up at the usual time, 5am, and I could tell that I was in for a rough bout of it.  Moving around felt like walking in deep mud, talking felt like a chore, getting dressed felt like working in a low, slow gear. 

Depression is a family malady.  One of my uncle's nearly died from it, and I believe it shortened his life. Mine comes on slowly, and usually, I can get over it with a little effort, and by the time I get to school and get actively involved in teaching, it seems to go away. No such luck today.

I could really tell that I was in for an above average bout of depression when I felt happy to be held up by a freight train at the railroad crossing that is on the road to my school.  I needed some time to gather my thoughts.

After I got to school, I could not get going. I did not bring my chess games to the cafeteria as I usually do when I have morning duty like today.  I did not do well in my first two classes. I felt like I was teaching in a fog. 

Finally, I decided to let my immediate administrator know about my condition. She very kindly offered me the opportunity to go home once she found someone to cover my classes.  

I hate doing that, but I also worry that my presence could do more harm than good.  I am thankful for the way we look out for each other at Centennial. It's one of the reason I have chosen to remain there all these years.

I came home. Rested a bit. Took the dogs out of a long walk to get some fresh air. I think I am okay, and I plan to be there tomorrow. 

A psychiatrist once told me that the brain is an organ, and it gets sick just as other organs do.  So my brain was a bit on the puny side today.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

School to Prison Pipeline? A View from a Teacher

I am involved in several social justice groups and causes including my "social gospel" church Mayflower Congregational UCC, the AFT my teachers' union, the ACLU, and some other organizations as well.  One cause that has received much scrutiny in these groups is the "School to Prison Pipeline."  This is the claim that school policies unfairly target some students for harsh punishment like suspensions or expulsions, even incarceration where other students violating the same rules are not punished as harshly. Those who do receive unfair treatment are often ethnic minority students, LGBT students, and those students in Special Education.  These policies "channel" these students into our prison system. The prison industry, racism, underfunded and overcrowded schools, zero-tolerance policies, and even lazy teachers are typically blamed for the problem.

I can only report anecdotally about this problem as a teacher in urban education.  Today, I think, provides at least some insight into what really goes on when students are disciplined.  I would be interested in the opinion anyone who wished to comment on what happened today between me and a middle-school student and his hoodie.

I have morning duty in the cafeteria during breakfast.  I try to get there before most students arrive to supervise those eating there, usually around 7am or earlier.  I bring my chess equipment for those who enjoy playing a game or two in the morning.  Sometimes I will play with a student or two, but mostly I try to keep an eye out for trouble. 

Today, two middle school students were chasing each other, which can be dangerous in our very crowded cafeteria.  I told them to stop  at once.  One girl did, but the other boy tried to keep at it.  So I intervened and allowed the girl to go her own way.  I noticed that the boy still has his hood on, a violation of the school dress code. I told him to remove the hood. He refused to do so.  He tried to walk away from me still hooded. I followed.  I asked him his name. He refuse to give it to me and kept on walking.  I told him that all he had to do was remove his hood. He told me to leave him alone.  I followed him till met with the school principal who did know his name.  She told him to take his hood off. He refused her.  She then took him to the school office.  I am not sure what happened to him, but he likely was put in in-school suspension for defiance of authority. 

Now, someone might look at this incident and say that this was another example of the school to prison pipeline at work.  The boy was black.  I am sure other students had their hoods on that I did not confront. So from his point of view, I singled him out.  But should that have been a basis for ignoring his defiance?  

Some may even question why I made such a big deal out of a kid wearing a hood up.  Recently, we had some students get into the auditorium and a girl with them was assaulted.  The boys wore their hoods in order to escape recognition by our school security cameras.  So allowing students to wear hoods is at its heart a safety issue.

So, what should I have done other than what I felt I had to do?  All the young man had to do was comply, but his pride got in the way of any sense. 

Tomorrow I will be back in the cafeteria. I will be telling several students to take off their hoods.  I will be defied.

What should I do then?

Monday, February 01, 2016

Why Teachers Leave

Before I write about today's topic, I would like to report on a positive ending to the problem with student "A" who put her head down on the desk and would not remove it.  I was able to get a good phone number for A and made contact with her mother.  We had a good, constructive conference over the phone.  A's mother said that her daughter had been depressed lately over the death of a friend, but that she, the mother, would speak to her daughter and try to get her to correct her behavior. The last few days A has kept engaged in the class.  A has not been a model student in any sense, but she is at least active and doing work, though not often of the highest quality.  I will take one victory at a time.  

Now, I would like to address a problem that my state of Oklahoma seems to be now coming around to recognize: the growing teacher shortage. Right now, it is estimated that Oklahoma is short about 1000 teachers to fulfill all its vacancies.  This year nearly 500 "emergency certifications" issued statewide. This is a certification that allows someone without any teacher training to step into a school classroom and teach. If those folks are anything like I was when I began to teach for the first time in 1994, I pray for their sanity and health. 

I am neither a prophet or the son of a prophet, nor am I the 7 son of a 7th son, but I did predict at the beginning of the No Child Left Behind era that this sort of thing was inevitable. When teachers were to be judged by the performance of their students on standardized tests, and when those tests were the main measurement for the performance of a school in which that teacher taught, I knew that teachers would be getting out of the tougher schools, the tougher districts, and look for greener pastures or just wash their hands of the whole thing and walk away. In Oklahoma, we also have the problem of having just about the lowest teacher pay in the nation. We usually rank somewhere from 47 to 49 in teacher salaries while Texas' pay scales are somewhere near the middle of pack with teachers earning $8K to $10K more on average.  

We have some of the finest teacher training academies in the nation in schools like the University of Central Oklahoma, but their graduates usually go out of state to pursue their profession.  The Oklahoma City Public School District has had to go as far as recruit teachers from Spain in order to fill some vacancies.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that those teacher have struggled to deal with student behavior and are not likely to return or even finish out this year. 

This problem has come about from some very detrimental educational philosophies, particularly "blame the teacher" and "more money is not the solution."  I believe that the first one philosophy, that of saying that all that was needed to improve schools was to hire, train, and develop good teachers, is the most harmful because it blindly refuses to consider factors that are beyond any teacher's control, mainly the environment of poverty from which most of our student come.  

I have always been amazed that when critics of public education speak of the "crisis" in schools, the schools they inevitably speak of are those in the most impoverished urban areas.  Any attempt to point this out to these critics is pushed aside as "excuse making" or "refusing to take responsibility" or racism or just plain laziness on our part. A movie, Searching for Superman, was made with this philosophy at its center.  The result has been that teachers are searching for schools with a less toxic environment in which to teach, or they are leaving the profession altogether.

The problem of pay is more complex since critics can point to states with low overall pay, but whose students are high achievers.  Often these states, such as South Dakota, are primarily rural states with very low numbers of minority/majority schools. However,  most teachers I know would trade a raise in pay for a better environment with better student behavior. Few of us got into teaching for the money. We all want a place where we can practice our craft and not spend most of our time and energy managing student behavior.

This to me is the missing ingredient in dealing with low performing schools.  Today, we had a major disruption in our school when a male student assaulted a female student physically, striking her to the ground because he thought she took his phone from him.  That student, who has a right to a public education, should not be in a school classroom again.  But there is no place to put him.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Feeling Stymied

Today A came to class and plopped down in her usual seat. Her friend, MK, was not in school today.  Often A and MK play off each other chatting, laughing, and cutting up creating a major distraction to any attempt to teach or learn. 

Yesterday, I had to have MK move to a different desk because of this, and then, when she continued to disrupt, had her removed by an administrator.  MK has now been referred to the 11th grade administrator and likely will be suspended for a few days, probably in-school. 

So not only was A missing her ally, she found out that I developed a new seating chart.  She had to move from her accustomed spot to a new one. Student typically resist this, as they do most anything that takes them out of their comfort zone or seems to make them cede power to any adult authority. 

A, at first, said that she would not move. I told her that if she did not, I would have to have her removed by an administrator as I did her friend.  Probably mindful of this, she responded by getting up, moving to her new seat, and putting her head down on her desk. Her head remained there despite my efforts to get her engaged in the lesson.

This kind of passive/aggressive behavior is typical of many students at our school.  If they cannot refuse to cooperate overtly, they find other ways to refuse cooperation. It is very difficult to counter this short of getting administration involved. I decided not to do so in this case.

One reason I did not goes to the fact that I am uncertain, in many cases, if this was passive/aggressive behavior against me, or if this was some other problem either psychological or physiological. Another student, who I have found to be sincere, told me that A had not been feeling well today.  As a male teacher, I am hesitant sometimes quiz female students too closely as to why they may be unwell. I am quite familiar with the problems association with the menses and the reluctance of female students to discuss them with me. Also, our students sometime fall victim to depression or other emotional maladies.

In any case, I was stymied by A's refusal to participate in this lesson. During my planning period, I tried to call her parents, but I reached a dead in there.  I had two numbers available to me, both were "no longer in service." This is a common problem for households in poverty. Despite the best efforts of the federal government and others, many of our families lack available means of contact.

So, I could not do much with A today. I sent an email to her administrator asking for help with her. Perhaps between us we will come up with a creative response.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"You're Doin' Too Much"

"You're doin' too much." Has become the Catchphrase of the Year in our school.  Typically this is delivered with an eye roll and hand wave.  It is said whenever a student gets caught doing something wrong such as being tardy to class, talking when the teacher is trying to deliver a lesson, being up and around the classroom when they should be at their desk, or on their device texting or listening to music.

Most often it is said when a teacher or administrator is assigning consequences for misbehavior, such as in this bit of recent dialogue:

"MK, this is the 3rd time you have been talking to A when I told you to stop. I warned you that if you did it again, I would move you to another desk.  You have 15 seconds to move to this desk." (I point to a desk up front.)

" Mr. Green, you doin' too much."

"Doesn't matter, you have 10 seconds to get up and go. Or it's a detention."

"I'm not the only one talking. You doin' too much."

Of course, what the student is saying is something like. 'I don't think you're being fair.' (We never are.) 'I think I should be an exception.' (They all are.) 'I don't think we should have rules.' (They are all beyond this.)

Of course, this is the world of the teenager where any older person is boring and stupid, and any authority figure is singling them out for special punishment.  Added to this is the fact that for many of our students, encounters with authority figures like police, judges, and administrators are frequently unpleasant, even threatening.  A friend of mine pointed out to me that our kids often do not feel that we are on their side. We are merely enforces of the system that keeps them in their place.

I continually explain to them that I am not their enemy. That what I wish for them is success in life.  That from the viewpoint of those in the outside world, the one they will be joining very soon, we teachers and administrators, rather than "do too much" are not "doing enough" to prepare them for that larger world. 

Most of the time they do get it. Those who don't face very bleak futures.

Monday, January 25, 2016

All Hail the CFA

Today, I gave my English III classes their CFAs. That acronym stands for "Common Formative Assessment." The idea behind it is that I map out what my objectives will be for a particular unit, say, as it was in this case, "figurative language and sound devices in poetry."  IOW, metaphors, similes, hyperbole, alliteration, and everyone's favorite ONOMATOPOEIA. (I always get a 

out of saying that. snark, snark)

Anyway, I give the test to discover how much my students know about the objective. When I get the results, I decide if I need to teach the class the objective. (In Education Talk, this is called "whole group remediation. It is a law in education talk that "Thou shalt not use a one syllable word where five syllables will do.")
Or I might pull kids out of their electives and do small group tutoring. (And yes, this is given the title "differentiated remediation."  You get the idea about the syllables by now, don't you.)

So, I gave the CFA to my classes, and since students finish the quizzes at different rates, I had a nice little vocabulary assignment for them to do to finish up the class.  

Actually, it was a fairly easy day for moi, but I don't feel as if I did any great amount of teaching.

Why do we do this?  Well, for the state tests, of course. The objectives we select come straight from the Oklahoma End of Instruction (EOI) Blueprint, which tells us the objectives that will be on the EOI given in April and the percentage each objective will occupy on the tests.  

In other words, we look at the blueprint, look for those objectives most tested and make them a part of our units, which we assess through our CFAs.  Got it?  If it ain't on the test, we ain't teaching it, at least till we get through those EOIs. 

Forget about the broad range of literature our students will never encounter. Forget about the sweep of American/English/World Literature that our students will never connect. Forget about the creative applications that they could be making on their own with what they have studied.